La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Surviving Shadows

Ali and the Horrors of Human Trafficking

Mahmoud Elsobky
Reading time
6 min.

One of the most harrowing episodes in the opera Ali exposes malpractices still rife in Libya today. The country has long served as a major transit point for migrants and refugees looking to reach the safe haven of Europe. Tens of thousands, however, have seen their hopes dashed when finding themselves detained and exploited by criminal networks and militias thriving in the country’s current political climate. Ali, twelve years old at the time, was one of them. Investigative journalist Mahmoud Elsobky has been researching the issue for fifteen years, speaking to scores of witnesses and in this article he outlines the people smugglers’ revenue model and the human toll their practices take.

Completely at the mercy of the decisions and provisions of the people who have dictated every step of his perilous journey, including a three-day trek through the desert region of Sudan, Ali arrives in the district of Kufra in Libya. If up until then he had lived with the illusion that he was being helped to safety, then it was quickly and brutally shattered. Ali suddenly found himself locked up in a warehouse-like building with four or five hundred other migrants. Most of these airless buildings are located in the area of Tazerbu in the Libyan desert, away from prying eyes and protected by corrupt policemen working hand in hand with the smugglers. They can hold hundreds, sometimes as many as a thousand migrants, sharing one or two toilets and possibly a couple of showers.

The major locations for human trafficking and detention centres in Libya
The major locations for human trafficking and detention centres in Libya © The New Arab

Since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been a politically unstable country where rivalling factions and militias strive to fill the power vacuum and share the economic spoils among themselves. In this landscape, characterized by corruption and poor law enforcement, the people traffickers who have brought Ali so far, decide it is time to see the colour of his money. Led by infamous figures like Kidane, Abdelrazak, Ermias and Abdelsalam, these criminal networks take advantage of the desperate plight of migrants, offering them further transportation and facilitation services at exorbitant cost, and subjecting them to hardship, including arbitrary detention, physical assault, sexual violence and torture.

On arrival in Kufra, Ali is immediately brought before the gang leader, Walid, also known as Tewelde Goitom, presumably his real name. To maximize his profit, Walid sorts the migrants according to their abilities and origin. Each nationality has its price. “Somalis are treated differently from others,” Ali testified to me. They are often detained for ransom money, whereas individuals from places like Guinea are subjected to exploitative practices such as forced labour on farms or construction sites, often owned by people who have good contacts with the police and the army. In practice they make slaves of their victims. If you speak too well or if you speak other languages, they will make you work for them as a translator. Ali recalled an unsettling episode involving a Somali who arrived in the warehouse later on. Struggling financially and attempting to protect himself, the boy claimed to be proficient in Arabic. “He found himself coerced into a distressing role as a mediator between the smugglers and their victims, and was even made to inflict injury on fellow Somalis.” Europe could be a curse for any migrant claiming to have a relative there. “You should never say that. They will think you are rich and exploit it. I know people who had to pay 14,000, even 16,000, 17,000 euros. I met someone at the sea who had to pay three times.”

Standing in front of Walid, Ali and his friends learn that they owe him 6,000 US dollars for bringing them to Libya and a further 3,300 US dollars if they want to cross the sea to Europe. If they don't pay up, they will face torture.

It soon became clear that these were no empty threats. The warehouse had a fixed schedule: at 6 a.m. everybody was summoned to call their family and ask for the money. With Walid enthroned in front of them, the migrants had to stand in line, taking it in turns to use the phone to call home. During this call, Walid would hit them so hard that they cried out, the cruellest form of blackmail imaginable for loved ones on the other end of the line. Ali’s mother tried to reassure Walid that she would pay, but she needed time to get the money together. It made no difference: Ali was forced to undergo this ritual three times a day until the money was actually delivered.

That was just one aspect of the ordeal in the warehouse. “For months, we lived on a piece of bread and a glass of water a day,” said Ali. The poor nutrition, combined with unsanitary conditions and swarms of insects resulted in a whole range of skin, respiratory and other illnesses, including tuberculosis. Then, of course, there were the psychological effects of a prolonged stay in these appalling conditions. With smugglers demanding exorbitant fees for their release, many languished in captivity. “People who didn't pay were left there for a long time,” another survivor* revealed to me. “There was no medicine, no treatment. A lot of people got sick and some died.”

The fate of women was particularly harrowing. Many of the female survivors I spoke to confirmed that they had been raped by Walid and his accomplices. In some cases, this had resulted in pregnancy. After that, they were simply sold on to another smuggler. In a practice documented by the UN and Save the Children, women and girls would also accept travel expenses, promising to repay the debt by working in Europe. Having reached their destination, they see their debt converted into a form of forced labour, in many cases prostitution, for a period of three years or more. Nigerian women are one particular target group who subsequently end up in prostitution in Europe.

Even if they manage to escape from the warehouses, migrants are never safe in Libya. Two migrants testified to me that, while taking a taxi, they heard the driver on the phone informing someone that he had “two goats” with him. He was planning to abduct them and sell them to a smuggler, but they realized his intentions in time and managed to escape. A similar fate can await you when you are intercepted, whether on land or at sea, by one of the Libyan authorities.

The European Union has been criticized for colluding with the Libyan Coast Guard in a bid to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean Sea. As outlined in the Human Rights Watch report No Escape from Hell, EU institutions and member states have provided substantial sums of money to bolster the capabilities of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, one of two contending authorities in Libya. The funds are used primarily to reinforce the GNA's capacity to intercept boats departing from Libya, detaining the individuals on board and returning them to detention centres, where they are held in appalling conditions as bargaining chips for financial gain and political influence.

Prosecuting the perpetrators

On June 6, 2018, the UN Security Council took action against individuals who were perpetuating this cycle of abuse. Abd Al Rahman Al-Milad, also known as Al Bidja, was identified as the leader of the regional Coast Guard unit in Zawiya in north-western Libya and placed on the sanctions list for his involvement in violence against migrants and other human smugglers. Mohammed Kachlaf, known as Qasab, was also implicated for his role in facilitating Bidja's illicit activities relating to trafficking migrants.

In 2021 Walid was arrested in his native country of Ethiopia, and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. He was extradited to the Netherlands, where he is now also standing trial for his crimes.

After seven months, Ali's mother was finally able to secure the money for the release of her son by selling their plot of land. He was maltreated until the very last day. In April 2024, the month when the European Parliament passes its new Pact on Migration and Asylum, which scores of migration experts and NGOs believe will have disastrous consequences for refugees at Europe’s borders, Ali’s story serves as a poignant plea for a change of policy.

*Real names and details have been altered or omitted to protect the identity of the testifiers.